Only 15% of US Millennials Call Themselves Christian (?)

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. As if there isn’t enough of that about secularism.

As Christian Century reports, Thom Rainer of the Southern Baptist Convention has research showing that only 15% of millennials call themselves Christian:

The SBC, which considers baptism a key marker of Christian faith and also denominational vitality, tallied 314,959 baptisms in 2012 — a low not seen since 1948.

“It’s a sad situation,” said Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. “In 1948 we had 6 million members of the SBC but today we have (nearly) 16 million members.”

Yet, Rainer called himself an “obnoxious optimist.” Although his research on the nation’s 80 million “millennials” (born between 1980 and 2000) shows that only 15 percent call themselves Christian, Rainer said those youth are “on fire” for faith.

It’d be interesting to know what “call themselves Christians” meant in this study – did it count if they checked the Baptist (or Lutheran or Catholic or whatever) box, or did they have to say they’ve accepted Jesus as their savior and sought baptism? It doesn’t say.

Whatever the def, by my calculation, Rainer’s study shows that the SBC Baptists had about 19 members for each baptism in 1948, but now they have about 51 members for each baptism. And we all know that the societal trends affecting Baptists are affecting all of us – I suspect the numbers in many of our churches would show similar declines.

And here’s Cathy Lynn Grossman over at RNS on sliding baptism rates.



  1. Color me skeptical. I suspect the SBC is using a very particular definition of “Christian,” particularly since, according to CARA and based on reseach using time-diaries (which seems to be the gold standard of these sorts of things), 20% of adult millennial Catholics are in church on a given Sunday. Maybe a quarter of them are faking it…

    CARA also has an interesting post on the decline of Catholic baptisms in relation to Catholic births.

  2. I like James Martin’s comments at the end of that piece:

    The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at “America” magazine, worried that many parents don’t understand the theology of baptism, “the most familiar but misunderstood sacrament.”

    “It’s become a rite of passage for the family rather than what it really means — an incorporation into the Christian community. So some parents don’t realize why it takes place during a Mass or why godparents should be Catholics. They are surprised that preparation is involved.”

    Still, said Martin, “It’s my favorite sacrament, much more than weddings. Everyone is happy at a baptism. No one is worried about the flowers or the reception or what the baby is wearing. It’s a great teachable moment about the church, God and love.”

    One little quibble, however — I’d say that godparents should be Christians, rather than solely Catholics. Indeed, I know more than a few very faithful Lutherans who are godparents for the children of their Catholic friends, and the priests in each case that I know about had no problem with this arrangement when they were asked about it.

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #2:
      Actually, Fr. Martin is correct. According to canon law there must be at least one Catholic godparent. There may also be a Christian “witness” but according to canon law that person is not a godparent. Not all dioceses enforce these norms equally, but what he is saying reflects the norms of the Catholic Church.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #7:

        Then the RC priests who advised my Lutheran friends that they could indeed be godparents were wrong. They’ll be sorry to hear that, as will the RC families involved.

  3. I’ve had young people tell me though they do not believe in God they nonetheless consider themselves Catholic. The sacraments, rituals, and especially holy day (Christmas, Easter) are cultural “markers” or, in some sense, identification tags. Or, as Fr Martin noted with respect to baptism, rites of passage.
    Pope Francis rightly teaches generosity with the sacraments. But is there still a point/circumstance where a sacrament might be ‘deferred’? Is the only requisite for, say, baptism, confirmation and marriage simply wanting it? As we know, in the early church baptism was a big step and involved much time in preparation and scrutiny. Why so strict then and soooo easy now? Which comes first— the sacrament or the faith?

  4. Perhaps, when talking about “millennials” and Christianity, we should look at their likely experiences. Millennials are generally regarded as those born between 1982 and 2004. These years, roughly, coincide with the rise of the so called “religious right” and millennials are the generation most likely to associate Christianity with figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, etc. and see Christianity as little more than a right-wing political philosophy. Given that the aforementioned leaders of the religious right where often heard to be promoting such secular political things such as tax cuts for the wealthy as part of one’s Christian duty in addition to demonizing gay people and single mothers it is not much of a stretch to assume that this is a factor in millennials largely tuning out a Gospel give the back seat to the platform of the Republican party.

    Such can be extended to Catholicism as well. Granted JPII and BXVI and the USCCB would address matters of social justice that were ignored or even dismissed by a hostile protestant religious right but their emphasis was more on the “circle the wagons” against the culture and putting the church into a siege mentality and all too often the USCCB let the protestant religious right lead the way in the political arena.

    And such a reaction has not been limited to the US. The French baptism statistics sited above show a huge drop in baptisms in France between 1990 when a majority were baptised to 2011 when a majority were not. Who were the popes during that period and what role did their message and their tone, play in this decline. One can not insist on centralizing power and authority in Rome and then blame others for what happens afterwards/

    1. @Norman Borelli – comment #6:
      In the last 30 years have evangelical religions gained while established denominations have declined? If that is the case then your observation about the cause for the decline in religion among millennials seems to have a gaping hole. I followed politics closely for the past 4 decades and the idea that people focused on what religious right leaders were saying about economics simply doesn’t hold water. Were they ridiculed for their social agenda, yes. But their economic beliefs were largely ignored. The Catholic contemporaries of the individuals you referred to were the Bishops who authored an economic pastoral letter that certainly didn’t embrace free market economic philosophy; another occurrence that’s problematic for your weak correlation. Didn’t the current group of US bishops have nice things to say about Obamacare? Hardly a support for your proposition either. Free markets may not be a Christian duty, but it is the best system that offers the most just economic outcomes. On the other hand demagogues like Obama actually say that they are going to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and shelter the homeless. Don’t forget that there is no virtue in taking money from others and claiming that you are the one who’s providing the charity. Christ taught us to perform private charitable acts, not that paying taxes was righteous. If there is one thing where we might find some agreement is that Catholic clergy should be required to take a rudimentary economics class. That might help them avoid the silly emotional arguments that exploit peoples’ fears.

  5. Sean Peters should consider confronting any priest who assesses a charge for baptism. That practice is called simony which is a serious abuse of the law. Some parents may choose to make an offering, and priests are free to accept or decline. I’ve noticed that few parents make such offerings because it’s apparent that this is what priests and deacons do as part of their ministry. I think what the Pope is saying with regard to sacramental practice is that priests should be realistic in terms of what they expect with regard to the faith of those seeking sacraments. We should look for things to affirm and build from there.

  6. “Free markets may not be a Christian duty, but it is the best system that offers the most just economic outcomes.”

    We have yet to see a free market system emerge in this country. What we have is criminal exploitation of the poor by the rich who wrap themselves in the mantle of freedom and allow their wealth to be propped up and expanded by political sycophants.

    Millennials certainly experience inequity and see much of the Catholic hierarchy as unwilling to engage. They were largely selected for their outward orthodoxy in sexual matters (not complete personal adherence, though) and not for their economic or theological acumen.

    I do think a lack of evangelical focus in parishes is a big contributor. Among bishops and clergy there is little excuse for disregarding Evangelii Nuntiandi in the 70’s and Go and Make Disciples in the 90’s.

  7. Todd Flowerday : We have yet to see a free market system emerge in this country. What we have is criminal exploitation of the poor by the rich who wrap themselves in the mantle of freedom and allow their wealth to be propped up and expanded by political sycophants.

    This is a better reply to Michael Alexenko than I can offer so I will just reiterate it and add that the statements on economic justice the US bishops have made that he refers to, most notably “Economic Justice For All” were made during the 1980’s when the bishops appointed by John XXIII and Paul VI were still dominant. That letter simply applied established Catholic Social Teaching to the US economy and was met with fierce opposition from the right. By the mid to late 1990’s, and certainly into the 2000’s the bishops of JP II and later B XVI became the dominant voices and economic morality very much too a back seat to hissy fits over civil recognition of same sex relationships, etc.

    Thus the so called mellenials, coming of age in the late 90’s and into the 2000’s heard little from the hierarchy other than shrill culture war rhetoric (talk about demagogues!) demands that voting for anyone but Republicans imperiled one’s mortal soul, and an increasing tendency for many bishops to allow themselves to be led around by the nose by the Republican party. This includes bishops who compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin. Can one imagine the hue and cry if, during the roll out of “Economic Justice For All” a bishop had compared President Reagan to Hitler or Stalin?

    The heading of this thread is “Only 15% of US Millennials Call Themselves Christian.” One can’t absolve those who have been the face of Christianity in the years the millennials have come of age for the responsibility of this loss.

    1. @Norman Borelli – comment #12:
      Do you really see a reply in the quote you chose? I see an emotional expression based on no evidence. Much like the economic pastoral letter you admired. I’ve never seen 100 pages of economic analysis completely empty of data. That was a colossal waste of time. The Bishops at that time failed to see the connection between big government and evil. Best example of that was in the Soviet Union. If you wanted to see an exploitation of the poor you would have seen it there. Soviets specialized in creating the poor. When governments promise people food, clothing, shelter, and healing by taking from the “rich” they cunningly replace family and church with the benevolence of political characters. If Church leaders want to find out why young people are sitting at home rather than in the pews they might want to consider the idea that the almighty government has become their religion so they are in no need of the moral guidance of a pastor. Concern over “man made” global warming and if you believe someone making more than $250,000 should be taxed at 75% are now the barometer used to gauge the decency of a person.

      1. @Michael Alexenko – comment #13:
        If you are unable to see the HUGH swat of territory that separates Catholic Social Teaching (which “Economic Justice For All” was firmly rooted in) and the Soviet Union than I am afraid you are operating on an entirely different level and therefore there really is no point in continuing this discussion.

        To Mr. Feehily, I am in general agreement with you. My point has been that it has been many US bishops who have made an effort in recent years to tie the church soley to the Republican party (a few even going so far to compare President Obama to Hitler and Stalin) and that this has been a factor in the trend of the church losing credibility with younger people.

        And with that I have made my last post in this thread.

  8. This is not supposed to be a political forum so I’m curious why anyone would feel free to imply that affiliation with one party or another deserves opprobrium. All of us, including bishops, have a right to support or oppose candidates on the basis of how they are perceived to be espousing beliefs or policies which comport with a Catholic understanding of the Gospel. From my perspective both parties are in huge need of reform.

  9. I do think that politics plays a role but I become increasingly uncomfortable when clergy attempt to dabble in politics.

    I’ve believe in “render to Caesar ….render to God…”

    Clergy should be “addressing” the problems: no one should go to bed hungry, all should have healthcare, no babies born with Aids, etc and leave the “how” to solve these problems to the politicians and the voting public. I think we can all agree what the problems are. But the disagreements are in the political arena in how to resolve them.

  10. I think the shifts in the relationship between ‘public’ Christian leaders and US political parties is an interesting approach, but I don’t think it is the primary or even a major contributor to the decline in Millennial church membership. Consider that most Millennials were quite young (if even born yet) in the ’80s. In the 90s they were children or teens. I think it is unlikely that during that time they formed impressions of who-Christians-are based on Falwell et. al. and I doubt very many had any thorough knowledge of the USCCB. That might be a factor for Boomers who have ‘left’, but not people who were at most 10 when Bill Clinton was elected.
    From an entirely non-scientific sense of things (I’m a Millennial so perhaps it’s not entirely projection), other more immediate factors might include:
    1) haphazard or infrequent church attendance as a child
    2) Related to this is a catechetical program that even if attended could be very weak and aimed at getting the kids to their sacramental milestones, but often not much more. And without regular church attendance, catechesis has no real foundation from which to build.
    3) Millennials are from a world of very high divorce rates and single parent households. Once again, without knowing data, I would venture to guess that these families are far less likely to attend church regularly than other families.

    I think we go off track when we think of Millennials as ‘leaving’ due to thought-out reasons. I think they’ve taken a neutral, disinterested stance because they could hardly be said to belong in the first place (and they are VERY wary of identifying themselves with anything at all). In this respect, I think we need to examine the relationship of the outlooks of the Boomers etc. to the Millennials in order to see how Millennials may have ‘inherited’ certain practices or outlooks with respect to Christianity rather than being something totally different than what precedes them.

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